There's no room for skepticism anymore; T20 cricket is here to stay, so it makes sense to show it respect
Years from now, when cricket-lovers look back on the game’s evolution, they might identify a competition that the International Cricket Council staged almost as an experiment as being responsible for a seismic shift in how we view the sport.
The ICC World Twenty20 2007 was an attempt to embrace the newest format, with a view to spreading the cricket gospel worldwide. Few had any idea what lay in store. India, who had played just one Twenty20 international before the event, rested the senior trio of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Australia lost to Zimbabwe in its opening group game, prompting Ricky Ponting, the captain, to say: “We've got to start respecting the game a bit more.”
The skepticism was not unfounded. The format devised by a team at the England and Wales Cricket Board led by Stuart Robertson, their marketing manager, had been in existence just four years, and it was only in 2005 that Australia and New Zealand had played the first Twenty20 international.
In its report of the game, the Wisden Almanack says: “Neither side took the game especially seriously, and the sizeable crowd might have been excused for thinking they had been transported back in time. Both teams wore garish body-hugging kits last seen in the 1980s, while the New Zealanders went one stage further and sported all manner of outmoded facial hair, creating a cabaret feel that helped camouflage the fact that - with no senior 20-over competitions in either country - few players had experience of the new format.”
Ponting scored a 55-ball 98 in that match, but said afterwards, “I think it is difficult to play seriously. If it does become an international game, then I'm sure the novelty won't be there all the time.”
We hear a very different tune now, and for that, you have to go back to the inaugural ICC World Twenty20. The Indian audience had been lukewarm about the event, but all that changed after a gripping first-round encounter against Pakistan that finished in a tie. By the time the tournament ended less than a fortnight later, millions of Indians were converts. The open-top-bus parade that greeted the victorious team in Mumbai stopped traffic for hours.
Within months the first Indian Premier League, a cash-rich franchise-based competition that derived inspiration from both American and European sport, had been developed. A number of the world’s leading cricketers were contracted, and the event has gone on to establish a firm foothold in the five seasons since.
In Australia, the domestic Twenty20 event has shifted from being contested by state sides to being run along franchise lines. Similar versions have sprung up in other countries, and the winners now have the carrot of the Champions League Twenty20 – an event in which the boards of India, Australia and South Africa are stakeholders – to aim for.
More importantly, these competitions have invigorated domestic cricket. Where once a few hundred people, at the most, watched games, IPL and Big Bash matches are often played in front of packed stadiums.
The ICC’s events have seen a similarly enthusiastic response. After South Africa, England was the host. Despite it not making the semi-final, the atmosphere for the knockout matches was electrifying. At Trent Bridge, after Pakistan had knocked South Africa out to win a place in the final, fans celebrated outside the venue till past midnight.
The Caribbean provided a carnival-like ambience for the ICC World Twenty20 in 2010, where England finally rid itself of its jinx on the global stage, inspired by dashing performances from Kevin Pietersen.
It may have started out as something of a lark, but Twenty20 is now far more than the distant cousin invited to the party. The game’s greats have also changed their views. Australia may have been having fun in 2005, but by the time he gave the Spirit of Cricket lecture at Lord’s in 2009, Adam Gilchrist was convinced that the format was here to stay.
“It is a great challenge, but what a great and worthwhile challenge. It would be difficult to see a better or more effective way to spread the game throughout the world," he said.